Shepherd University officials have not reached out to parents or students after a women’s soccer coach resigned last year when confronted by the University with complaints of sexual harassment.
While parents and members of the women’s soccer team have sought an explanation and apologies, Shepherd has said the matter is closed.
“The University feels that it is a disservice to team members and the team to speak in a deeper detail than we have,” Valerie Owens, executive director of University communications, said in a May 28 email.
“It was just a shock,” said Beth Bernardino, whose daughter is on the women’s team. “My daughter was very upset that the administration never approached the girls and just said, ‘We’re sorry we put you in this situation.’”
The complaints of sexual assault are from a former student of Shepherd coach Tristan Longnecker, Laura Anton, who played for Longnecker in the 1980s. Longnecker worked at Shepherd for three years and resigned Nov. 9, 2018.
Anton played on the D’feeters Soccer Club and Ursuline Academy soccer teams in Dallas, Texas, both coached by Longnecker. Details of her complaints were published May 19 in the Dallas Morning News.
Anton, 51, now a pediatrician near Austin, Texas, said that Longnecker began assaulting her when she was a 13-year-old middle school student and continued until she was in college, where Longnecker followed her to Virginia while she attended George Mason University.
Anton eventually grew uncomfortable with their relationship and ended it for good. She returned to Texas after graduating. Longnecker stayed behind. Since she came forward with her complaints, others in Texas have complained of assaults as well.
Longnecker did not respond to multiple efforts to contact him.
Anton said she suffered immense trauma from the experience. After years of therapy learning to cope with the abuse, Anton came forward with her story in an attempt to protect other female athletes from sexual predators.
Anton said that had the Dallas Morning News not picked up her story, “There would have been no conversations between players and parents to determine if there were current victims.” She hopes her experience and story will help encourage others to speak out and stand up for themselves. Without willing supporters, there is little recourse for a victim to be heard and a perpetrator to be exposed, she said.
According to email correspondence between Anton and Shepherd officials that were provided by Anton, she reached out to Shepherd in October 2018. Most of her correspondence was with Annie Lewin, Shepherd’s title IX coordinator.
Initially, Anton said she was “pleased and impressed…with how I was taken seriously and with how swiftly they acted.” However, as time passed, she said she sensed that “communication between me and the school had taken on a different character of ‘legal speak.’ It was clear to me that [Lewin] was being ‘advised’ as to what to tell me…I could tell the door was closed to me.”
As Lewin’s correspondence took on a more formal tone, Anton said she felt the University was stonewalling and she was disappointed. After speaking to two Shepherd parents, Anton said her “disappointment has morphed into disgust…I now have to question the true nature or intentions of Shepherd’s swift actions in regard to my allegations. Combined with their reticence or failure, however we characterize it, to inform the players and parents it’s now my impression that Shepherd’s response was carefully calculated to their own advantage.”
In an email response, Owens stated that Shepherd did not have “all of the significant information that is part of the Dallas Morning News investigative story published in May.” However, the Nov. 9, 2018, affidavit given by Anton to Shepherd features explicit details of the assaults.
Wendy McClellan, another mother whose daughter plays on Shepherd’s soccer team, said she understood the legal implications facing Shepherd as it coped with these complaints, yet she also said she wanted Shepherd to reach out. McClellan and Bernardoni met with Shepherd vice president of athletics Chauncey Winbush on Friday, May 24. For about an hour they discussed ways Shepherd could communicate with the campus community in such cases.
“We’re hopeful going forward a new protocol is in place leading to more transparency between coaches and players,” McClellan said.
Bernadoni said she also was focused on the future. “I would love to see a better response to things like this. We won’t prevent sexual predators but we can do a better job of acting on it. I would like to see a more positive approach.”
Winbush did not respond to questions.
In a Nov. 29 email to Anton, Lewin said she was confident no students at Shepherd had experienced inappropriate behavior.
“I also wanted to let you know that over the past three years, I have had rather dynamic interactions and communications with the student-athletes and nothing has ever come up in reference to Mr. Longnecker here at Shepherd, but I will certainly continue to keep my ears and eyes open,” Lewin wrote Anton.
Yet no one on the women’s soccer team was directly asked whether they have seen or experienced anything inappropriate, McClellan and Bernardoni said.
“I couldn’t find one example of how they contacted the team,” Bernardoni said. “It seems they could have found a way to approach the girls. I would love to see the girls and the administration figure out a way together on what is a good response and figure out how to do better the next time, to allow the girls to gain some trust in the administration.”
“They could have gone out to every athlete. They didn’t have to name names or point fingers. They didn’t tell us anything. That’s why parents are upset. Nobody knew anything,” she said.
According to several Shepherd athletes, Lewin speaks yearly to team members informing them of Title IX regulations governing sexual assault on campuses.
While resources may be provided to students and athletes regarding sexual misconduct, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. In addition, RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, states eight out of 10 victims knew the perpetrator. When violated by someone they trusted, victims often take years to recognize the experiences as assaults, experts say.
Anton said that Shepherd should supply the girls on the soccer team with professional therapy services to help them process everything. Her primary goal in unveiling her story has been to warn parents and players of the potential dangers perpetrators carry.
“In my opinion, [they] should have put forth an official written statement to the parents and players,” to explain the coach’s departure, Anton said. “We continue to be at a disadvantage and the perpetrators have the upper hand because of all the smoke and mirrors and deflection by the organizations to avoid any culpability.”
“I believe there is a great deal of education and understanding to be achieved on the part of society, especially lawmakers, in terms of sexual abuse,” Anton said. “As a survivor who has undertaken the arduous journey over many years to expose my abuser I have a great deal to add to the conversation.”
According to RAINN, an American is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds, every nine minutes a child is assaulted, while only five of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison. Anton said she wants her story to serve as an example of how the current legal system does not accurately reflect the realities of childhood abuse.
“The system favors the perpetrator without regard to the generally accepted trajectory of a sexually victimized child as they are processing this and moving into adulthood,” Anton said.
Laura Anton speaks out against sexual predators
The following dialog contains unedited answers provided by Laura Anton. The questions are in italic.
Now that Longnecker has left Shepherd, aside from what you wrote last night, is there anything else you wish to say to the university? Is it enough that Longnecker has resigned?
Initially, when I first contacted Shepherd in October of 2018, I was pleased and impressed, frankly, with how I was taken seriously and with how swiftly they acted upon my information. As time went by and I attempted through repeated emails to ascertain if the parents and players had been informed and what they had been told. I gradually got the sense that the communication between me and the school had taken on a different character. The tone definitely changed. Now, remember, all of my correspondence after the initial discussion with Chauncey in October involved only Ms. Lewin. Her emails definitely took on the character of “legal speak”, shall I say? It was clear to me that she was being “advised” as to what to tell me. And that was it. I could tell that door was closed to me. And if you look at her final emails to me you can see that their final message to me was that they considered this situation handled with no further obligations on their part. Pretty classic stonewalling. I was disappointed, for sure.
Now that I’ve spoken with two current Shepherd parents, that disappointment has morphed into disgust. Unbeknownst to me at the time of my reporting, Shepherd had, within the same year I believe, released the head soccer coach for what these parents have said was inappropriate behavior with the girls, among other things. He had coached there for many years and most recently, four years I think, been teamed up with Tris! These poor girls have been operating within the sphere of these two men….wielding power and influence over them. With this new information, I now have to question the true nature or intentions of Shepherd’s swift actions in regard to my allegations. Combined with their reticence or failure, however we characterize it, to inform the players and parents it’s now my impression that Shepherd’s response was carefully calculated to their own advantage. I’m not surprised though. WVSA did the same on advice of their legal counsel. It’s disappointing and puts the players at risk, as I’ve said before. The legal system let Tris slip through years before when I was one of his victims and there was a court case involving him (his background check that society puts so much faith in is clean). This same legal system also prevents me or any of my contemporaries who were victims from taking any action against him now. I realize that the maneuvering that entities like Shepherd and WVSA engage in are a part of this reality and legal atmosphere that, unfortunately, puts the youth at risk and serves to shield the perpetrators.
So I think the answer to the question of whether Tris’ resignation was enough is obvious. No. Had the article not been published we wouldn’t be in touch and having this conversation. The parents and players would have no to reason to think twice about any future interactions with Tris. There would have been no conversations between players and parents to determine if there were current victims. He was free to create the narrative of his resignation as he wished….and no one was the wiser. I hope this can serve as a guide to future victims of any sexual abuse in their attempts to call out their abusers. The deck is stacked against you. Even well-wishing parents and other adults who were suspicious or inadvertently missed the signs in my case and could contribute to reporters’ efforts to get a strong story out there to start the conversation were hesitant to stand up in name and speak out. Again, advantage perpetrator. I owe immense gratitude to people like Sue Ambrose of the Dallas Morning News and her editor Mike Wilson, Ryan Quinn of the WV Gazette-Mail, and now you, without whom there is little recourse for a victim to be heard and a perpetrator to be exposed.
What would you say to the girls, whether as a team or as individual young women?
I would encourage everyone of them, individually and as a team, to engage the professional services of a therapist to help them process all of this. In my opinion that should be at the expense of the school. That would go a long way to show goodwill on the part of a school who at this point appears to have put its interests first. And also, take heart and look at my experience with my own teammates rallying to my side. You have each other and a bond that will sustain you.
What has been the response to the Dallas story? Positive? Overwhelming? Is it what you expected? Are you accomplishing what you set out to do? Is there more you want to do?
The response to the Dallas story has been absolutely positive. The paper’s editorial board printed a powerful editorial article the following day. Both Sue and I have received an outpouring of gratitude and support. But for me, the support began much before that. Beginning back in November I reached out to one of my long- ago teammates. We hadn’t spoken in three decades. I told her my story and about my efforts regarding Tris. Up to that point I had been “in hiding” as I refer to it…running from anything and anyone who knew me “back then.” I was not in touch with anyone from my soccer days. She immediately went about creating an army of old teammate supporters. It was overwhelming, and still is in a wonderful way. Eighteen of them, spread out across the country, were then emailing and texting me and basically opening theirs arms to bring me back into the fold. They rallied. They called Sue to give their input to the article. They assisted Sue in tracking down others important to the story from years ago. They sent old photos…many of which are used in the article. And they remain at my side today, in constant contact and at the ready to carry this through.
After the article, this army has only grown. It now includes my friends and teammates from elementary school…from a time I refer to as “my before” ….obviously in reference to when Tris first entered my life. They have come forward to help remind me of who I was before him, the girl they loved and want to draw back to them. Like my competitive soccer teammates of my abuse years, they have joined them at my side. In addition, after the article, my Ursuline Academy “sisters” (as classmates there refer to each other…lifelong) have surged to my side. I heard from almost 20 of them during the days surrounding the article print date. Again, I hadn’t spoken to any of these women since graduation in 1986. Like my elementary friends, they too expressed their love and support and desire to bring me back into the fold. “Once a sister, always a sister” they said.
So is the response from the article what I expected?…an emphatic No! Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this outcome when I first approached Sue at the DMN in the fall of 2017. My life has been changed forever because of this article. When I initially emailed that first woman from my old team, I explained that I was trying to reclaim my past that he stole from me, not having a clue what that was going to look like or even if it was achievable. This article is allowing me to rewrite the narrative of my life…what I’ve been through and what it’s going to mean going forward.
As for accomplishing what I set out to do, my main intention with the article was to get Tris away from young girls and, perhaps, reach other victims that he may have abused after me. My only avenue to achieve that was to expose him by telling my story. But the work is not done. I have no sense of how aware the parents of the younger girls on his Epic team and those of the Olympic Development Program are of my story and his history, as well as any players and potential victims from teams past in VA and MD. So with the help of reporters and my teammate/friend army we are actively spreading the word and posting all of these articles in order to reach as many parents and players who have been in his path.
In addition, I’m determined to be involved in the recent push throughout the country to change the statute of limitations on sexual abuse. I want to be able to use my story as an example of how the statutes and the realities of childhood abuse are not aligned. The current system favors the perpetrator without regard to the generally accepted (among the scientific/medical/ psychological communities) trajectory of a sexually victimized child as they are processing this and moving into adulthood.
Has coming forward eased some of your pain? Has it loosened your burden?
As a former member of a team, how do you think universities should handle such situations with the teams and their parents?
In my opinion, what the University and Club team should have done is put forth an official written statement to the parents and players that clearly stated that Tris was being released/resigning over serious and credible allegations of sexual abuse of a youth player during his time as soccer coach in Texas in the 1980’s. In my case, they could have easily put me in touch with the parents that wanted more information, as it was mine to give and I obviously was very open to giving it! These parents and players, as well as all of those that have gone before over in VA and MD, are and have always been my motivation for coming forward. They are the audience I was trying to get to! And as I feared, just coming forward and reporting him to these two entities, the University and Club, was not enough. What message does that send to other victims, as well? We continue to be at a disadvantage and the perpetrators have the upper hand because of all the smoke and mirrors and deflection by the organizations to avoid any culpability. I’m still not clear why there was never an investigation at the school through Title IX to identify whether there had been any misconduct involving the players. And what ever happened to reporting this to the police, either in Texas or VA, as they say the law dictates for any allegation past or current.
The Trump administration has proposed changes to the Title IX civil rights law that would weaken protections for victims of sexual abuse on campuses and offer more protections to perpetrators. Is that something you would want to address as you pursue your efforts to stem sexual assault?
I am absolutely willing and interested in contributing my personal experience of abuse in anyway useful to the current discussion and consideration of changes to the current Title IX protections. I would welcome the opportunity to be involved. I believe there is a great deal of education and understanding to be achieved on the part of society, especially lawmakers, in terms of sexual abuse…case in point my eagerness to assist in the push to change the statute of limitations. With a greater understanding of how these crimes are perpetrated and its effects on the victims I believe our legislators and policy makers will be better equipped and empowered to design an equitable system for dealing with accuser and accused. Before and since this article came out I have been in contact with more than several women with stories of abuse that they feel they cannot come forward with. Their perpetrators in each case?…still out there, still embedded in positions with youth. Other young girls and boys…daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, friends….at risk under the power and influence of predators hiding in plain sight. The current statute of limitations and changes like those proposed to Title IX send a damaging message to these victims of past and recent crimes…either “you won’t be believed unless you can prove it” or “there’s nothing anyone is going to be able to do about it.” You can see now why they won’t come forward at the enormous risk to their own emotional wellbeing as the “accuser” facing these odds. Thus, they get no justice for themselves, no punishment for the perpetrator, and the information about their abuser that could prevent further crimes goes untold. As a survivor who has undertaken the arduous journey over many years to expose my abuser I have a great deal to add to the conversation.